CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It's been said, "Once is an accident; twice is a trend; three times is a problem."
For the third straight preseason game, New England's offense has been inconsistent and low-scoring through the first quarter. While "problem" may be a strong characterization, it's apparent that the starting offense – albeit an incomplete entity at this point – needs to work out some timing and communication issue before the season opener in two weeks.
In particular, backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo continues to struggle with consistency. Since he'll be starting the first four games in place of to-be-suspended Tom Brady, this is even more pronounced a concern than it otherwise would be.
At times, the third-year passer looked good - a fantastic deep out pass to wide receiver Aaron Dobson, for example. He balanced that out, though, two plays later by showing poor pocket awareness when his line collapsed and he was under pressure. Garoppolo was still inside the tackle box when he threw the ball away – a clear intentional grounding penalty which wound up costing the Patriots 16 yards and ultimately forced them to punt the ball away.
The contrast was even more apparent when Brady entered the game late in the first quarter and immediately connected with Dobson for a 37-yard gain over the middle. Though that drive ended in just three points, Brady's next drive saw him toss a gorgeous over-the-shoulder touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Hogan.
Garoppolo came back in the game in the late second quarter and had a chance to hit Hogan on a deep pass down the numbers, but he overshot his intended target.
Stalled drives and settled-for field goal attempts (Stephen Gostkowski uncharacteristically missed a pair Friday night) have haunted the Patriots in the early going of games this summer with Garoppolo at the helm. It's important to recognize that he's without his full complement of receivers – no Rob Gronkowski or Danny Amendola – and Julian Edelman just returned to game action against Carolina. However, time is rapidly diminishing for Garoppolo to get it together.
"Ups and downs," Garoppolo conceded in his post-game remarks to the media. "Just little things here and there that we need to get corrected. We'll take care of it. We'll do our best to get there. We've got two weeks till [the opener]. We'll work our tails off to get to that point. We'll get there."
Meanwhile, the Patriots defense added to its big-play total this preseason with a trio of first-half interceptions of Panthers QBs Cam Newton and Derek Anderson. That unit is clearly ahead of its offensive counterparts as the summer winds down.
In particular, second-year defensive end Trey Flowers is making the utmost of his opportunities to fill in for injured Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, and Shea McClellin. Flowers registered yet another sack, his third in as many games this month and looks well on his way to earning a job on the 53. On the other end of the formation, veteran DE Chris Long also has been impressive all summer. He again provided good pressure consistently versus Carolina, plus a nice tipped pass that led to an interception when Long dropped into pass coverage. That pairing has done well to mitigate the losses of Ninko, Sheard, and McClellin.
Cornerback Logan Ryan also made an impact, as he was one of the interception recipients in his first game back this preseason.
"Watching the first couple of games from the sideline back home, I wanted to be out there, after seeing the turnovers these guys were getting," Ryan declared about the defense as a whole this summer. "I was happy and blessed to be a part of it [at Carolina]. Turnovers early in the game are definitely infectious."
Top 2016 pick Cyrus Jones had, by far, his best performance as a punt returner thus far. He began training camp shakily, muffing at least one punt a day for the first couple of weeks. But against Carolina, he displayed much of that big-play reputation he earned as a return specialist in college, including an electrifying 60-yard return in the third quarter. Perhaps he's finally overcome whatever was hindering him at the start of training camp. It was the most confident he's looked as a punt returner this summer.
"I guess you could say that," Jones admitted. "The more I'm out there, the more I'm going to be comfortable and the better I'll be."
DT Terrance Knighton could be fighting for a roster spot this week. Rookie Vincent Valentine was given the start next to Malcolm Brown, and veteran free agent Markus Kuhn has had a strong camp and preseason to date.
Knighton's lone appearance in the first quarter was on field goal team. Even undrafted rookie Woodrow Hamilton saw snaps on defense ahead of Knighton. He could be losing his grip on a roster spot with roster cut-down deadlines coming next week.
"It's disappointing," Knighton acknowledged later. "I'm not going to make too much of it… Everybody wants to play. I didn't get a chance to. That's the decision they made.
I have faith in my ability and the coaching staff's decision, whatever it was. I'm not looking for an explanation or anything. I'll go to work tomorrow. I still have a lot of football left in me.
"Whatever happens, happens. If I'm here, I'm here, if I'm not, just… take it one day at a time."
Other end of the spectrum, running back Tyler Gaffney has had a really nice summer. Impressive throughout camp, increasingly gaining first-team reps through the practices, and holding his own during games. He looked confident, decisive, and quick against Carolina, continuing and upward trend. I still like his chances of sticking on the 53-man roster. Feel-good story, too, after his first two injury-plagued seasons in the league.
Second-year tight end AJ Derby had his least impressive outing – one catch for 20 yards – but still saw plenty of action throughout the game and seems to have a commanding lead over veteran Clay Harbor for the third tight end job behind Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.